When it comes to its national conference planned for Boston this week, the Urban Land Institute is standing its ground.

In the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., members of the organization’s executive committee – headed up by Boston real estate veteran Joseph W. O’Connor – weighed the possibility of canceling the four-day event at the Hynes Convention Center. Ultimately, however, the group voted unanimously to push on with the full program, O’Connor told Banker & Tradesman. “There wasn’t any hesitation, but there was a meaningful dialogue,” he said of the session.

“We felt we had to make a statement that America needs to get back to business,” explained O’Connor, who was named ULI chairman in July. “We all thought it was important for the organization that we get together, even more than it was before the disaster.”

Committee member Charles R. Kendrick Jr. concurred with that view, stressing there are both emotional and pragmatic reasons to assemble amid the current turmoil. On the latter end, Kendrick said the conference offers a unique opportunity for real estate leaders to assess the attack’s sweeping impact on the industry and determine strategies for the future.

“There will have been enough time for people to have absorbed the initial shock and to see the patterns that are starting to shape up,” said Kendrick, managing director of Boston-based Clarion Ventures. “People are still in mourning, but they are also able to start talking about going forward and [determining] what this means in the environment that has changed so substantially.”

The conference runs between Wednesday, Oct. 3, and Saturday, Oct. 7, with the first day including such special events as the International Mayors Forum, where mayors from around the world will gather to discuss topics of common interest. It will be followed by the second annual Global Development and Investment Forum, at which panelists will discuss ways that towns, cities and states can remain competitive in the global economy.

Beyond such regular fare, ULI press spokeswoman Patricia Riggs said there will be several programming changes in response to the terrorist attacks, some focused on the professional ramifications and others on the psychological and spiritual aspects. Former U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, for example, will speak on rebuilding the city’s Financial District, while Rev. Peter J. Gomes will provide an inspirational perspective on the tragedy. A member of Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Gomes was to have done a presentation on “Shaping the Space in Which We Live,” but that program has been cancelled. For the most part, any events disrupted by the new agenda were rescheduled rather than quashed outright.

Also added to the slate will be Marine Gen. Joseph P. Hoar, an expert on the geopolitics of the Middle East and South Asia. He will share his knowledge of those regions and answer questions about what can be expected in the coming months. Along those lines will be an appearance by Steven Emerson, considered a leading expert on radical Islamic groups.

“It’s going to be a very different and very moving meeting,” predicted O’Connor, adding that there will also be members speaking who were directly impacted by the incident, some of whom lost numerous colleagues.

Touring the Hub
Boston is one of a half-dozen cities which rotate to host ULI’s annual autumn meeting, considered the big event of the year for the Washington, D.C.-based organization. The Hub traditionally draws especially well, said O’Connor, reflecting the fall foliage season, the city’s established real estate industry and the fact that many ULI members attended college in the area.

The World Trade Center attack will most likely dampen attendance, O’Connor acknowledged, with between 500 and 1,000 people expected to remain at home. But while it would be a sizeable number of defections, that still means that more than 3,000 members should be on hand, a healthy turnout given the current climate. The event is expected to provide a badly needed shot in the arm for Boston’s flagging economy, with hotels and tourist destinations devastated during the past three weeks.

For those who do show up, ULI has assembled a variety of educational and cultural offerings for the conference, including several tours of real estate developments in the Boston area. A mobile workshop on the reuse of obsolete buildings, for example, will include visits to the former Charles Street Jail in Boston, which is being converted into a 300-room luxury hotel, and to Landmark Center, a one-time Sears warehouse near Fenway Park that has been successfully repositioned as a mixed-use complex of office, retail and cinemas.

ULI is also sponsoring a boat trip to visit development sites on Boston Harbor, as well as an underground tour of the Big Dig. Other excursions are planned for the Hub’s Downtown Crossing retail district, Cambridge’s biotech market and several neighborhoods currently undergoing revitalization efforts.

On the cultural end, ULI members can visit an exhibit of Jacqueline Kennedy’s White House Years, the Italian markets of Boston’s North End and the historic homes of Newport, R.I. There will also be networking and social events throughout the four-day event.

Despite the recent difficulties, most of the organizers of this week’s conference remain optimistic about its prospects. Kendrick remembered a similar atmosphere that occurred during the 1992 ULI meeting in Houston, an event held amidst the backdrop of the Los Angeles riots that erupted following the Rodney King beating. The incident, he said, was a stark reminder to attendees that the country’s urban woes were not behind it.

“One of the consequences of that kind of substantial and sudden change is that it creates an atmosphere for making changes in the business,” said Kendrick. “Out of these shakeups, you get a lot of creative thinking that you don’t usually see.”

ULI Seeking Patterns Amid The Rubble

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 4 min